PTA: terrorizing Sri Lanka for 42 years


By Marisa de Silva


The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has predominately targeted men belonging to ethnic and religious minorities (Tamils and Muslims), and their arrests leave the women and families vulnerable. The women have to bear the brunt of the socio-economic impact of these arrests. Women are left to care for the elderly and their children, and generate an income in order to survive. They also have to liaise with lawyers and visit the arrested men. An increase in poverty levels and indebtedness, is an additional consequence of the arbitrary arrest and detention of primary income earners. Thus, this indirectly places an additional burden on the State. Further, as society tends to buy into the government narrative and stigmatise such families as ‘terrorist families’, these families also face social ostracism and psychological trauma.

Guilt by Association

In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday Attacks of April 21, 2019, hundreds of Muslims were rounded up and arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act of 2007. According to lawyers working on PTA cases, at least 500 Muslims, between the ages of 18 and 49, were arrested and detained under the PTA, following the attacks. Of those arrested, 98 were from Kattankudy,  Batticaloa, the hometown of Zahran Hashim, the alleged mastermind of the attacks.

To date, 92 of the 98 detainees from Kattankudy remain in remand custody, with six persons having been released on bail. In one particular instance, 65 Muslim youth and men were arrested under one charge.

The arbitrary and sweeping use of the PTA follows the pattern of its over-use and abuse against the Tamil community during the three decades of ethnic conflict. It has contributed greatly to further polarizing communities and deepening the divides.

Whilst it is recognized that those involved in violent terrorist activities must be held accountable under the law, arresting and detaining a number of family members under the PTA, purely based on suspicion is deeply problematic. These blanket arrests deny the presumption of innocence, create an environment of guilt by association, further polarizes society, intensifies the spread of Islamophobia and creates a deep resentment among the largely peaceful Muslim community. Arbitrary arrests under the PTA are often ‘witch hunts’ targeting a minority community or dissidents, or it is a means of collecting evidence. This is a rampant violation of fundamental human rights.

These cases exemplify the urgent need to repeal the PTA, a long-standing call by victim families and local and international activists and rights groups. Furthermore, the sweeping arrests under the PTA and the treatment of detainees expose the deeply ingrained prejudice towards ethnic/religious minorities, failures of the law enforcement and prison systems, and the need for urgent reform.

 Historical context

The PTA is a draconian law introduced in 1978 to legitimize the State’s use of brutal force and inhumane ‘counter terror’ tactics to quash the Tamil insurgency spearheaded by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Since then the PTA has been used disproportionately against people of Tamil ethnicity, subjecting them to arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without charges, inhumane detention conditions, torture, forced confessions, post-release harassment and restrictions, including re-arrests. Currently, at least 146 PTA detainees (including 6 women and a 1½ year old infant with a heart ailment), continue to languish in prisons around the country.

As at 2015, the actual number detained under the PTA was unknown, but a list of 182 persons detained under the PTA, and remanded at 11 official remand prisons, was compiled and released by the Department of Prisons. However, the list did not include those being held at detention centres such as Boosa and the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) in Colombo, and this indicated that the actual number of persons arrested and detained under the PTA at the time, would have been far higher.

Some of the types of cases flagged at that time by the Watchdog Collective included:

* Persons who had been in remand for 18-19 years without having their cases concluded;

* Persons in remand for 15 years prior to charges being filed;

* Persons in detention for 15 months prior to being produced before a Magistrate and being remanded;

* Persons who were brought for 400-500 court hearings whilst in detention, without seeing a conclusion to the case,

* An instance of 15 cases filed against one person at 6 courts across 4 districts; and

* Instances of persons who were released as innocent and discharged from all charges after 5-6 years in detention, only to be subjected to post release harassment, including re-arrest.

Islamophobia and media complicity

The Easter Sunday attacks triggered yet another wave of Islamophobia, which has been on the rise since the end of the war in 2009. This general hostility towards the Muslims, fanned by irresponsible media houses further exacerbated the situation, resulting in the Muslim community being made more vulnerable. The cases of Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen, who was falsely accused of carrying out mass sterilizations on Sinhala women, and the Horowpothana Five (five men who were alleged to have been accomplices of  Zahran Hashim) , are clear examples of the media destroying the lives of six men and their families, by spewing lies, and peddling on innuendo and hate speech. To date, no media institution has been held accountable for their irresponsible actions.

 “We want to take action against the media. They are the ones that destroyed our lives with their lies. They must be held accountable for their irresponsible reporting, somehow. We want a retraction and apology published on the Lankadeepa cover page, like when they published lies about my husband,” said J. Hairulhudha, wife of one of the five men arrested under false charges, in Horowpothana last year.

Many families of detainees spoke of being ostracized in their communities and even their children facing harassment from fellow classmates and teachers. “Everywhere we would go, people would say ‘here comes the IS[SIS] crowd. Our children would be asked why their father was in jail? And if he was an IS[SIS] terrorist? We had never even heard of who Zahran was until the attacks. Why was this happening to us,” many wives and mothers of those arrested following the attacks, lamented.

Lack of support and indebtedness

Having lost the sole breadwinner, many of the families had to find alternate sources of income. Whilst relatives did their best to support these families, they still had to take out loans or pawn their possessions, to be able to afford lawyer fees, transport costs for prison visits, and pay for food and school expenses for their children. Furthermore, due to the stigma attached to those who were arrested and the heavy surveillance on these families following the attacks, people were reluctant to loan money to these families or support them in any way.

It was particularly difficult for the families where the women were not accustomed to going out of the house on their own. Such women and their families had no means of fending for themselves. One such case was a wife from Kattankudy, who used to be a seamstress and did piecework for a nearby garment factory. When her husband was around, he would collect the supplies she required and take the finished products to the factory. Now she is unable to do that work because she does not have support to get her the necessary material or collect the pieces from her. It is culturally not acceptable for an unrelated man to come to her house. So now, she is struggling to pay back her loans and make ends meet. None of these families have received any support from the government or any other groups, and in the absence of the sole income earner of their families they are in dire straits

The following are some of the interviews carried out with family members of those arrested in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday Attacks last year.

 Family – *Fatima (mother), 53,Eastern Province, Sri Lanka
Detainee – *Infas (son), 21
Currently Detained – Kegalle Prison
Charge – Went to Nuwara Eliya for Bayan organized by NTJ
Occupation – Sales Representative, Hardware Store
Marital Status – Single
Dependents – Single parent mother, tailor

Fatima’s husband abandoned the family after the birth of their third child. She later sold her house to educate Infas, and they’ve been living in rented premises ever since. As her older two sons are married, it was Infas, the youngest, who was taking care of his mother and 75-year-old grandmother. Infas earned Rs 30,000 a month, and would give his mother Rs 25,000 to run the house.

Infas had joined some friends who offered him a free trip to Nuwara Eliya, to listen to a Bayan (sermon). He was not told anything more than that. However, he had told his mother that he was going with some friends for a party, and had left on Friday evening. When he returned on Saturday night, he told his mother where he’d been and about the Bayan (sermon), and said that he had felt “betrayed by NTJ”. “That alone should prove that he’s not a terrorist,” his mother said. “He went to a regular mosque. It was not even a NTJ one.

“It was the second day of Ramadan (May 9, 2019), my son and I were resting at the back of the house. He told me he would go and buy samosas to break fast once he woke up. Later that day, two vehicles with Police and CID officers came to our house and had asked for Infas. The police said they had to take him in for questioning. I said he hasn’t done anything wrong. They took his phone also and checked it, and later returned the phone but, not my son,” said Fatima. He was first detained at the Kattankudy police and later transferred to the Batticaloa prison. “They took him from our house, but they wrote on the charge sheet that he was in hiding. When they read out the charge sheet, I asked them why they were lying, but, they still didn’t change the statement,” she said.

“When Infas was produced before the Magistrate for the first time also, I raised this same issue, and the judge also asked as to why it had been stated that Infas was in hiding if he had been arrested from his home.

“Now that he has been transferred to Kegalle, which is a predominantly Sinhala speaking area, we can’t go there by public transport, so about 15 families whose children are also being held in Kegalle, all contribute towards hiring a van with a Sinhala speaking driver, and travel together. Once I add the cost of some food for him, to my travel cost, it costs me at least Rs 5000 per visit. We try and visit them once every two weeks at least. The travel back and forth takes up the entire day, and I get to speak to him for about 20 minutes.

“Initially he told me that they were packed like sardines, where everyone had to sleep on their sides. He said they couldn’t sleep or pray properly, and that it was very dirty. Now he says the conditions have improved. He keeps telling me whenever we meet, ‘you brought me up not to even hit anyone out of anger, to never be violent. Now look at what has happened to me.’ If he had done something wrong, I can understand, but why is he paying the price for something he hasn’t done? I believe God will help my son because he knows he’s innocent.”

We asked her what she needs to get by, she said she is in need of a sewing machine so she can sew pieces for the many garment factories in the area, as it’s something that she can do from home, and will generate some income for them to live on till Infas is released. The machine costs Rs 40,000 and she cannot afford to buy it.

Family – *Renoza (wife), 39, Eastern Province, Sri Lanka
Detainee – *Riyaz (husband), 43
Currently Detained – Monaragala Prison
Charge – Went to Nuwara Eliya for Bayan organized by NTJ
Occupation – Technician, CTB
Marital Status – Married – 3 daughters (07, 12 & 14).
Dependents – Wife and 3 children
Travel Allowance – Rs 2600 from ICRC every 45 days (received once as at 11
th Jan. 2020)

A neighbour, Rauf (from the NTJ), had asked Riyaz and another friend, Zubair to attend a 3-day Bayan in Nuwara Eliya, but, Zubair and Riyaz had returned within one day as they had not liked what was being said there. Riyaz prays at a regular mosque, not at a NTJ controlled mosque. He worked as a technician for the CTB, and after his arrest, his wife was given a one off payment of Rs 37,000 (Employees Provident Fund and Employee Trust Fund). Thereafter, they have had to find ways to fend for themselves.

Riyaz was arrested from his home on the 3rd day of Ramadan (May 10, 2019). The police had gone looking for him at the bus depot and then come to his home. Renoza had asked them why he was being taken, and that he’s not even a member of the NTJ. They had said it was because he had gone for the Bayan in Nuwara Eliya. (The police referred to the Bayan as training.) Renoza was 5 months pregnant at the time of Riyaz’s arrest. She had the baby in September but, the baby had passed away shortly after birth.

“Immediately after my husband’s arrest, all my neighbours came over and told me that he was innocent and he should not have been arrested. They would come every evening during Ramadan and comfort me, and told me to be strong. My brothers don’t come home to see me due to the heavy surveillance I am under, and as they belong to different mosques, there is also some tension between our families.”

Currently, Renoza lives with her children, in the same compound as her mother and sister. She’ is dependent solely on her in-laws, which she is very unhappy about, as her husband had always provided for them. “Whenever I visit him, my husband always asks me how we’re managing,” she said. He shares his cell with two others, so Renoza now knows them. The families travel together to visit their family members in detention. They travel for half a day and are only permitted to speak to their detained family members for 20 minutes. During the Christmas holidays, she was able to take her children to see their father twice.

“Even though my husband is brought to the Batticaloa Magistrate every 14 days, we are not permitted to see or speak to them, nor are we permitted inside of the courtroom. Families of all other detainees can enter the court, but they don’t allow families of those arrested following the Easter Sunday Attacks. The police have told us that they were following the judge’s orders. We can only try and catch a glimpse of them in the bus or as they walk to and from the courts, and we try and communicate with them using sign language.  Fridays are particularly difficult for me, as my husband used to take the children to the beach every Friday.  They especially miss their father on Fridays,” she lamented.

“I used to give tuition classes from home, but, since his arrest and the death of my baby, I haven’t been in the frame of mind to teach. Also, I have had no time as I have had to run around attending to my husband’s case and taking care of the children. Once my cut (from the Caesarean operation) is healed, I hope to start teaching again,” she said.

Renoza is also considering sewing pieces for garment factories, which will pay her a paltry Rs 15 per maxi dress (Long dress) and Rs. 5 per skirt. A maxi sells for about Rs 700 (and deducting about Rs 300 for the material and Rs 15 for the labour),a huge profit, is made on each garment, of which the women sewing the pieces see very little.

Many families like Renoza, had originally paid a lawyer Rs 10,000 each, to prepare their respective files, but he never appeared for them. Therefore, they all had to pay another lawyer, Ratheeb, who had then taken on their cases. The previous lawyer never returned the family’s money to them.

At the interview, it transpired that her monthly expenses, comes to approximately Rs 50,000, and that includes her children’s schooling expenses which amount to approximately Rs 12,000 a month. She prioritizes her children’s schooling expenses.

Family – *Shahira (wife), 31,Eastern Province, Sri Lanka
Detainee –*Umar (husband), 38
Currently Detained – Trincomalee Prison
Charge – Suspected of being involved in Aliyar junction clash in 2017
Occupation – Tailor
Marital Status – Married – 2 children (boy – 6 & girl – 10).
Dependents – Wife and 2 children
Travel Allowance – Rs 1250 from ICRC every 45 days (received once as at January 11, 2020)

In 2017, there was a big clash in Kattankudy between Zahran and his followers and another sect of Muslims, at the Aliyar junction. Umar was arrested by the Kalmunai Police, on May 13, 2019, but, released shortly after, as it was a case of mistaken identity. Shortly afterwards, he was re-arrested as he was allegedly on a list of those involved in the 2017 clash.

Shahira tries to go and visit her husband Umar, once every two weeks. She is not permitted to give him home-cooked food, only a lunch packet. When the children are free, she takes the children to visit their father. There is a small-meshed screen between visitors and detainees, through which they have to shout to each other as they’re quite a distance apart and there are many people visiting at the same time. “We are only given 5 minutes to talk,” said Shahira tearfully. On Christmas day, families were given an open day, where they were permitted to speak to detainees for 15 minutes, whilst being able to sit across the table from one another. “I took the children on open day to see their father but, he was not even able to touch them, or take the picture of our son’s first day of school to his hands. I had to hold it up for him to look at,” she cried.

“When we got back home, I told my son not to tell his school friends that his father was in prison, as I didn’t want him to face any problems at school. I told him to say that his father was working in a shop outside of Batticaloa. My son asked me, why I wanted him to lie? I felt so ashamed and hopeless. I don’t know what to do. Zahran has destroyed all our lives. My husband is innocent. Please do something and get him out,” pleaded Shahira.

Since his arrest, over the last 8 months, Shahira has been selling household and personal items, to survive, as she didn’t want to ask anyone for help. She also sold some of the pieces she had made for garment factories, and her husband had told her to now sell her sewing machine as well to earn some money.

Her husband would bring the unfinished pieces home and then take the sewn pieces to the factory. As this job of supplying the factory is only done by men in Kattankudy, she did not wanted strange men to walk in and out of her house, so she stopped sewing once her husband was arrested. For a short time, a friend’s would bring pieces for her to sew, but, of late, her friend is not responding to her calls, and so she has no way of getting the pieces to sew.

Soon after the attacks, everyone kept their distance from her and her family, and she had no support.

Now things have improved a bit. Her brother-in-law, who lives overseas, tries to support her a little, but she feels bad to keep asking him for help. “My husband always provided for us. We hear stories of women who are running to and from Quazi courts, due to their husbands not providing for them or ill-treating them. I never thought I would  be in this plight as my husband always provided for me,” she said.

She observed at the interview, that she needed a female runner to transport the pieces, between her home and the factory.

Family – *Rasheeda (mother), 67, Eastern Province, Sri Lanka
Detainee – *Asma (daughter), 36
Currently Detained – Dumbara Prison
Charge – Aiding and abetting terrorism (Wife of NTJ leader, Niyaz)
Occupation – Part time tailor and housewife
Marital Status – Married – 3 children (2 girls –7 & 10 & boy – approx. 6 months)
Dependents – Mother and 3 children.
Travel Allowance – Rs. 3200 from ICRC every 45 days (received once as at 11
th Jan. 2020)

Niyaz, Asma’s husband, had been working in the Middle East since 2017. He returned to Sri Lanka in March 2019, and on the day after the Easter Sunday attacks, packed a bag, took both his and her phones and left the house, without telling Asma where he was going. Asma had then told her mother that Niyaz had left home. On the April 26, we heard about the suicide explosion in Sainthamaruthu, Ampara, and on April 29, 2019, the police brought an image of Niyaz, and asked her to come and identify his body, as he had been in the house in Sainthamaruthu. The police had then searched her house and found her medical file and a motorbike, of which they took the registration book and keys and went. After identifying the body, Asma returned home later that day. On April 28, she was asked to come in for questioning, so she went along with her brother. She also wanted to have her husband’s body released. Once they got to the Ampara mortuary, she was told that the OIC was not there, and for her to stay the night and that the body would be released in the morning. That day, they issued a Detention Order, and transferred her to the Batticaloa prison. She was five months pregnant at that time. She gave birth to a baby boy three months later whilst in prison and was transferred to Dumbara, seven days after the baby’s birth.

“When they were at the Batticaloa prison, I would go see my daughter and grandson daily, but now I can barely afford to go visit them once in two weeks. I bought them a fan and a water heater when they were at the Batticaloa prison, but they haven’t transferred her to Dumbara. I hope another mother is benefitting from it at the Batticaloa prison. My daughter is not used to cold weather, and so has been getting ill often, so she made a special request to the judge to be transferred back to Batticaloa, but he had said that it was not within his jurisdiction. My daughter doesn’t know anything about the NTJ,” lamented Asimya’s mother, Rasheeda. Also, the police have written in her charge sheet that she was arrested whilst in hiding, even though she went to the station when they called her.

“We have to pay Rs. 2000 per seat for the van to Dumbara every two weeks. I try and take the children also when I can. In addition, I try and take foodstuff like dried fish and beef, milk powder, sanitary napkins, pampers etc., so it’s quite an expense. NTJ members don’t take dowry, so they were living on rent after marriage. My daughter used to work as a tailor, but her husband stopped her from working after she got married. He was working as a driver in the Middle East and would send her Rs 40,000  each month. She would also make clothes during festival time and sell them for some additional income.

Rasheeda herself is suffering from two blocked arteries. All the necessary arrangements have been made for her surgery, at the Jaffna Hospital. She had tried to get back the baby’s pillow that had also been left behind at the Batticaloa prison when her daughter was transferred, but, when she got to the prison, everyone had been masked, and the guards had told her not to enter as she was old, and could catch the virus that had spread throughout the prison.

“I’m very worried for the health of my daughter and grandson as they’re not used to the cold. Apart from the prison visits, I only get a glimpse of them when they are brought to the Batticaloa courts every 14 days,” she said.

 -This is an excerpt of the research carried out by Law and Society Trust on the socio-economic and psychological impact on families of PTA detainees following the Easter Sunday Attacks. The names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees. 

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